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Limiting pay raises affirmed by state Spitzer's legal staff backs one-step increase

Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's legal staff says that Buffalo employees who lost out on raises during the 38-month-old wage freeze would only be eligible to move one step up the salary ladder when the freeze is lifted.

And city workers will have to wait until the anniversary dates of their hiring to get the step increase, meaning less than 80 employees would see immediate increases in their paychecks when the freeze is lifted July 1, based on city officials' interpretation of the legal opinion sent Friday to Mayor Byron W. Brown.

In addition, city officials said the Albany opinion rules out any possibility that police officers will receive 10.2 percent in raises suspended when the freeze took effect.

"While the state recognizes the financial sacrifices public employees have made to help the city emerge from a period of fiscal crisis, its reading of the statute is that it does not provide for the automatic payment of wage increases or salary step increases that were frozen," the opinion read.

But Brown is hoping the State Legislature will pass a law this month that would allow the city to give workers all the step increases they missed since Buffalo's control board imposed the wage freeze in April 2004.

Still, city officials said Friday the state bill will not address the three annual raises of 3.4 percent that police officers missed. City Finance Commissioner Janet Penksa said there were fears that injecting that issue into the mix could complicate passage of the legislation.

"We're concerned that this could be the straw that breaks the camel's back," Penksa said.

Instead, city officials said they've assured the police union that they will try to deal with the raises missed in 2004, 2005 and 2006 when new contracts are signed.

"They will have to be addressed at the bargaining table," said Corporation Counsel Alisa A. Lukasiewicz.

Police union President Robert P. Meegan Jr. could not be reached to comment Friday. But a day earlier, Meegan told The Buffalo News the union would go to court if officers don't get raises they were promised in return for concessions they already made years ago.

The givebacks included an agreement to implement one-officer patrol cars and work schedules that gave the city more flexibility. Officers received $5,000 across-the-board raises and the first 3.4 percent salary increase. But three subsequent increases were suspended after the wage freeze was imposed.

Officers honored their end of the bargain, Meegan insisted.

The Police Benevolent Association was the only city union with a long-term contract that included raises when the wage freeze was imposed. But more than 440 city employees were barred from moving up the salary ladder in steps that were previously negotiated.

Another 1,980 employees did not receive small longevity payments. The latter group would receive only one missed longevity payment if the city's effort to win more leeway fails.

Michael Hoffert, president of the Buffalo AFL-CIO Council, a labor coalition that represents numerous municipal unions, said he's hopeful state lawmakers will let the city place all employees at the salary steps they would have been at had the wage freeze never been imposed.

Lukasiewicz noted that the administration raised earlier concerns that state attorneys might conclude that employees could only move one notch up the salary scale. She said that's why the city sought a written opinion from the governor's office, and why Brown began working earlier this week on a plan to try to get permission from state lawmakers to give workers all the salary steps they missed.

The legislation also would allow Buffalo's control board to treat the school district separately when it comes to the wage freeze.

This separation is critical, city officials conceded. The Board of Education has warned that bringing all district employees up to the salary levels they missed during the wage freeze would cost $20 million in the coming year and trigger "devastating" cuts. The city puts its costs at $2.2 million in the first year.

If Buffalo had been allowed to give police officers the three annual raises they missed, the total cost of lifting the wage freeze would have ballooned to $9.4 million. Both Brown and Penksa insisted the city could have afforded to pay even the larger sum without facing budget problems.

Tuesday, the control board voted unanimously to lift the wage freeze effective July 1. The plan that Brown put before the oversight panel called for giving employees only one salary step increase, even though he vowed publicly to work to get them all the raises they missed.

Why didn't Brown just seek board approval of the multistep increase? Lukasiewicz said the administration "did its homework" and discovered there were varying interpretations of the state control board law.

Spitzer on Friday also reiterated his opposition to any effort to weaken the city control board's powers.

"Until the financial stability achieved by the city to date is solidified through the implementation of long-term contracts with the public employee unions, the state does not support any legislative efforts to accelerate converting the role of [the control board] to advisory status," the governor's statement read.

Tom Precious of the News Albany Bureau contributed to this report.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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